Do I Really Need to Give Up My Seat to the Elderly?

8 minute read

(11 if you have suggested bleach injections as a viable treatment for any major illness.)

Adam Shepard
Co-founder and COO, Practice Empathy™

I  rode the bus last Tuesday, because our current means of transportation is an 18-year old Hyundai Sonata. 18 is, like, 94 in car years, and our Sonata drives as well as Fred’s Footmobile from the Flintstones. While it has served us well for the last couple of years, it’s starting to give us some issues, not the least of which is the fact that there is some sensor issue with the fuel tank, and so any time we pump the gas, we have to stand there and hold the pump handle at the perfectest, most tenderest spot--like it’s the Goldilocks of pump handles--or it will shut off, and so it takes us about 14 minutes of very precise effort to fill the tank, and...well, you don’t give a shit about any of that.

There I was on the bus. And a funny thing happened. This old dude and his cane lumbered up the steps and paid his fare, and when he turned around, nobody in the first three rows on this fully-occupied bus got up to offer him their seat. Everybody just kind of sat there. Looked one to the other. Finally, this lady got up with a roll of the eyes that said, “Fine I’ll do it, but I don’t understand why I’m the one to have to fall on the sword. Sheesh.” 

Her eyes said that. “Sheesh.” Her eyes said, “Sheesh.” 

Of course this was a comical scene to me, but more than that, it really got me to thinking if there could be 6 completely legitimate reasons why anybody should have to offer up their seat to an old person in the first place. “This is my seat. I paid for it. Get your own one!" 


Reason #1 to Give Up Your Seat to an Old Person: You Haven’t Yet Earned That Seat 

The elderly are the third most disregarded members of our society, coming in right after people with PhDs in animal husbandry and the Amish. They are bald and gray, and sometimes they smell funny. They often take an extra four or five seconds to dig deep into the troves of the synapses of their brains to find words that roll easily off the tongues of the more youthful. “Go ask your mother if she can make me one of thin pancakes from France that you stuff with bananas and nutella.”

They keep finding new places to grow hair, they have to fold their boobs into their bras, and they’re down to a various assortment of just five different outfits because “Why do I need three pairs of pants when I have two perfectly quality pairs to rotate and which will most assuredly take me the duration?”  

Their working years are behind them, and their mooching years are ahead of them. They just kind of sit around and read and watch The Price is Right and play chess all day, and the speed of their gait is inversely correlated with the advancement of their incontinence.  

But Old Dude earned that seat. He fought in a war or he served on the NYPD or he worked on a team that helped to market a revolutionary gadget in the 80s. Or he taught Chemistry to a bunch of thankless 9th graders. Or he mowed a lot of lawns or built the apartment complex where your cousins lived for 15 years. Maybe he raised a couple of otherwise punk ass kids into being respectable adults. Or maybe he wasn’t quite as productive: maybe he just waited tables at the local diner until he was 65 and then called it quits. Whatever he did, though, he put in the hours--presumably meaningless or otherwise--that you are now putting in so that he could one day have a cane in his hand and not have to stand there stumbling around holding a rail while the bus makes a left on Bristol. 

Are all old people worthy? Of course not. Jane Fonda; Sean Penn; Richard Nixon; Katherine Heigl. There are just as many cold-hearted old folks as there are genial ones. But that fact is inconsequential. We haven’t (yet) devolved our species off of the face of this earth, and this old person with the cane has his or her footprint on our continued existence. Nobody’s asking you to adopt him into your home; just to give him a spot to rest his bones for a spell.

Reason #2 to Give Up Your Seat to an Old Person: Doing the Right Thing is Healthy

Maybe we ultimately agree that giving up your seat is the right thing to do or maybe you’re one of those barbarous people who cares exclusively about your own pursuit and no one else’s. We have to agree, however, because science tells us so, that having empathy is good for our health. Managers who are empathetic of their workers report that those working under them tend to be much happier and are less likely to call out sick compared to workers under managers who lack empathy. Higher levels of empathy have proven to lower stress, connect us to others, improve our well-being, reduce burnout, regulate our emotions, guide our moral compass, and increase our sense of community.   

All that just for the low, low cost of simply giving up your seat? This is the best deal since the Louisiana Purchase.

Yes, and sure, it is true that you presumably become a better person by practicing and reinforcing this kind of behavior, but take caution, because it might seem counterintuitive to have empathy merely for the sake of serving the health of ourselves: empathy is not just doing good deeds. It’s the next step. To say, “Bro, I feel you. You need a place to sit” is only a worthwhile thought if you’re going to actually want to get off your rump and stand for the next eight minutes. Empathy often involves doing the uncomfortable in order to get as close to a win-win situation as possible, and in this case, both the win for you and the win for that old fella happen to end with lower blood pressure.

Reason #3 to Give Up Your Seat to an Old Person: You're Setting A Positive Example For Others

How lovely that you’re going to give up your seat and be the hero of this tale, and just look at all of these people shooting you smiles and thumbs ups and attaboy-pats-on-the-back, but do you fully understand the ramifications of your actions here on this bus? Researchers at Harvard discovered, to no one’s surprise, that empathy is highly contagious, and much like the compound interest my financial advisor told me was supposed to propel my account to the moon, being good to others can quickly spread. From Harvard:

In Studies 1 to 3, participants decided how much to donate to charities before learning that others donated generously or stingily. Participants who observed generous donations donated more than those who observed stingy donations. Crucially, this generalized across behaviors: Participants who observed generous donations later wrote more supportive notes to another participant (Study 3). In Studies 4 and 5, participants observed empathic or nonempathic group responses to vignettes. Group empathy ratings not only shifted participants’ own empathic feelings (Study 4), but they also influenced participants’ donations to a homeless shelter (Study 5). These findings reveal the remarkable breadth of prosocial conformity.

Interesting. Helping people makes others want to do good as well: initially because they want praise, too, and ultimately because they learn to actually like the feeling of helping people whether they receive praise or not. Kind of like the plot of every Disney movie ever.

As with most things human, we begin our journey from a place of self-service, and we arrive having created a community. We learn to do it for the sake of doing it--to “pass it on” just because that’s the right thing to do--and before we know it, we’re so far out of our comfort zone, we can’t even recall each and every one of our good deeds.  

So yeah, a butterfly flaps its wings in China and an inner city kid in Seattle gets a scholarship to college: how cool that offering up that seat to an old person might have a positive significance across town later tonight or tomorrow? 

Reason #4 to Give Up Your Seat to an Old Person: This Will Greatly Increase Your Odds of Meeting Your Future Husband or Wife

It’s completely absurd to get into the business of performing good deeds merely to advance your sex life (this is rather counterintuitive to the esssence of empathy), but, hey, if you’re going to be doing them anyway (the deeds and the deed), you might as well enjoy the benefits of your altruistic efforts. If you’re forward thinking enough here, and if we’re really going to break down love, this is all a numbers game: the math tells us that if you make a dogged pursuit, day in and day out, you’re going to meet the right guy or gal to spend your life with and quicker than you otherwise would have. 

On your way to that point in your life, then, as you’re playing the numbers game, don’t you think that if you stand up for enough old people, if you help enough of them cross the street, if you read enough of them the menu because they forgot their reading glasses at home--or whatever--don’t you think there’s going to be at least one onlooker along the way with their eye on you and with whom you can strike up a conversation? “Do you come here often to read menus to old people?” and boom! You’re in.  

Now that’s a unique “How did you meet?” story.

The benefits for putting this energy out into the world via these simple acts are numerous and astounding: this old person could be a venture capitalist or well-connected in the corporate world or retired from the same arena in which you are building your career; she could have a foxy granddaughter or grandson or daughter or son with whom to set you up on a blind date; maybe you have a mutual connection; maybe she’s getting off at your stop, and she wants to buy you a beer. 

No more need for Match or Tinder or Bumble or the latest online dating craze. All you need is your bus seat to find love. This gesture to offer your seat very well could make this old lady’s day, and on the way there, who knows who’s watching? People flock to charisma, and what is charisma but a harmonious union of confidence and passion, two traits that anyone can cultivate without any predisposed talent? It shows in your walk, it shows in your talk, and it shows when you shoot a wink and a smile at that old person as you’re standing up.

Reason #5 to Give Up Your Seat to an Old Person: It's So Easy a Monkey Can Do It

Indian religions represent some beautiful ideals and some strong values but I think it’s more fun to say “Karma’s a bitch” when your boyfriend cheats on you than to actually and truly believe that just because you returned that mistaken excess change to the pizza delivery girl there is now going to be some invisible spirit swirling over your head waiting a few more days before plopping an offer for your dream job into your inbox as recompense. Let’s talk a little more tangible here.  

Empathy has been with us as humans forever and with our ape ancestors before that. Empathy has helped us, over thousands of years, to get to this point, today, where we have a decision, right in front of us and free from the future ramifications of that decision, on whether or not to surrender our seat on the bus. Empathy exists in men, women, children, and animals alike. From a Greater Good Magazine article on the evolution of empathy: 

Rhesus monkeys refused to pull a chain that delivered food to themselves if doing so gave a shock to a companion. One monkey stopped pulling the chain for 12 days after witnessing another monkey receive a shock. Those primates were literally starving themselves to avoid shocking another animal.

Reason #5b to give up your seat to an old person: don’t be upstaged by a rhesus monkey.

And another cool example from Frans de Waal over there at Greater Good:

Carolyn Zahn-Waxler, a research psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health, visited people’s homes to find out how young children respond to family members’ emotions. She instructed people to pretend to sob, cry, or choke, and found that some household pets seemed as worried as the children were by the feigned distress of the family members. The pets hovered nearby and put their heads in their owners’ laps.

This type of consideration is real and concrete and makes an immediate and positive impact. You. You! Yes, even you. You can make that type of immediate and positive impact.

Reason #6 to Give Up Your Seat to an Old Person: You’re Going to be Old Soon Yourself 

Look at you over there with that fit back and those dexterous hands and that sharp mind and that plump skin that bounces back when you press into it. You feel great, no doubt, and you look absolutely fantastic in that selfie.

Enjoy it, because, unless your name is Benjamin Button, there comes a day when all of those beautiful and sharp features start to diminish, and a little while after that, there comes a day when you and I are going to stabilize our saunter with a wooden stick, and a few days after that will come a time when we will dig into our pockets to pay our fare, turn to face a bus full of people, and wonder if any of the actions from our youth were paid forward. 

The golden rule applies here more than ever because--even though you drive a newer model car, and the thought of riding the bus repulses you like drinking orange juice after brushing your teeth--one day you very specifically are going to hope someone is treating you the way you had treated the ancient generation of your youth: the way you wanted to treat them; not the way you had to. 

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Our mission at Practice Empathy™ is to spread kindness and compassion. If you're an asshole, then we likely wouldn't get along. But if you're not an asshole, and you want to show your friends and family and various random passersby that you're both thoughtful and considerate (and have impeccable fashion sense), have a look around our site to see what we have to offer. 

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